In January 1965, deeply influenced by the films of Francois Truffaut, Mrinal Sen set out to make Akash Kusum, starring Soumitra Chateerjee and Aparna Sen. The narrative treatment divided critics, and among the most vocal detractors was Satyajit Ray, as edited excerpts from a biography reveal.

Sen at that time was working on another Ashish Barman story. Called Akash Kusum, it is a story of a young man belonging to a lower-middle-class background, who wants to become rich by some quickfix methods. Sen incorporated some changes in the storyline... Thus the film’s hero Ajoy becomes a desperate dreamer of impossible dreams, who thinks he can break social and economic barriers with his dreams alone. In the end he fails and loses even the little he possessed.

But critics took such a stern view of the matter that Sen got a little worried. As reviews began to criticize the film and critics poured their ire on Ajoy, on 25 July, there was a feeble attempt to salvage the hero, as an ad commented: ‘He was not a bluffer, he only had ambitions.’

Akash Kusum (1965).

On the same day, a debate began in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section of the English daily the Statesman following a review of the film appearing in the paper.

The war of letters started when the film critic of the Statesman suggested in his review that if the film had ended on a Don Quixotic note, with laughter, the audience could have felt some sympathy for the hero. In a rejoinder to this suggestion, Ashish Barman stressed that such an ending would have been totally unconvincing, hence disastrous, because ‘it is almost impossible to lend stylized ambiguity to a topical theme. I stress the word “topical”.’

At this point, Satyajit Ray entered the scene. Sen recalls that Ray rang him up to say that he was going to join issue with Barman and Sen should not feel bad about it.

Although Ray had assured Sen that only Barman was his target, his letter was a frontal attack on the very basis of the film, its contemporaneity, and Sen felt he could not keep himself out of it any more. So, while Barman responded to Ray directly, by pointing out that ‘topicality of a story does not negate the basic human urges like love, jealousy, hunger, hope or the desire for a better life’, Sen entered the fray from a totally different angle: on the question of topicality, he spoke about Chaplin.

Sen’s and Barman’s insistence on topicality infuriated Ray and this time he launched a no-holds-barred attack, giving up all attempts at mock humour:

What I fail to see, however, is what conceivable topical point (the hero’s) behavior and its consequences are likely to make or have made in the film. If Akash Kusum has any contemporaneity, it is on the surface—in its modish narrative devices and in some lively details of the city-life. But where is the topicality of the theme and where is it in the attitude of its makers?

Letters from a large number of readers started pouring in and many of them were not very flattering about Ray. Some found him ‘dogmatic and intolerant’ while other could see ‘a perceptible undercurrent of cynicism’ in his letter. Meanwhile, Sen came up with another rejoinder, but strictly confined himself to the point relating to Chaplin, with no comments on Akash Kusum.

‘A crow-film is a crow-film is a crow-film’

These letters did not improve Ray’s mood and he came up with a savage piece of black humour. In a caricature of a summary of the film, he inserted the word ‘contemporary’ in every sentence at least once, like, ‘Hero lives in hovel, but by contemporary luck is blessed with physical attributes of well-bred affluence.’ The letter ended with the now-famous statement ‘A crow-film is a crow-film is a crow-film’.

The war was becoming too protracted and too personal, so the Statesman wanted to bring down the curtain on the issue; but both Sen and Barman were requested to have their final say. Sen neither attacked Ray, nor defended his film: he referred to Ray’s summary and observed that even Hamlet could be summed up as a story of a murder in a Royal House with ghost-mystery-romance-betrayal-incest episodes, culminating in the heroine turning mad and committing suicide and the hero also killing himself, with some more murders thrown in between.

Indeed, what had provoked Ray to launch such a vitriolic assault on Sen still remains a mystery. His allergy to the theme of Akash Kusum is difficult to understand as he himself had handled an identical theme seven years ago. In his Paras Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone), Ray had shown how a lowly paid clerk became rich overnight by getting a magic stone which transform all metal into gold. As a result, his lifestyle, social status and values changed dramatically.

But whatever the reason, the Akash Kusum correspondence proved one thing beyond doubt: the fact that Ray had crossed his sword against Sen in a public debate made it clear that deep down in him the maestro had recognized the relevance of Mrinal Sen. In Bengali filmdom, where he had been the unchallenged supremo since Pather Panchali, at last someone had emerged to pit his strength against him.

‘I could have written many more letters’

On 13 September 1965, the Statesman formally announced the closure of the Akash Kusum debate with an announcement that letters on this subject would not be published any more. On the same evening, there was a film society screening and Ray and Sen met each other face to face, in the auditorium. Ray, rather jovially, asked Sen, ‘What a pity it came to an end! Why did you stop it like that? I could have written many more letters!’

‘Well, I have neither your support base, nor your manpower,’ Sen replied. ‘I am all alone, but rest assured, I would have replied to all your letters!’

This, in short, became the leitmotif of the relationship between the two men over the next three decades—under the charade of a light-hearted banter, they virtually remained strangers, formal and correct, and even in their intimate circles, they rarely spoke about each other’s work.

Film buffs of Calcutta often comment that there are only two common factors between Ray and Sen—their height and complexion. As sensitive artists, both have been influenced by contemporary events and trends, but the end-products have been totally different—like Punashca and Mahanagar. This has happened a number of times in their long career: problems of modern youth inspired them to make Pratidwandi and Interview; the Famine of 1943 led to Baishey Shravana and Ashani Sanket; and their reaction to authoritarianism was Chorus and Hirak Rajar Deshey.

In the 1980s, almost by mutual consent, they changed positions. The lyrical, subtle, restrained Ray became more and more blunt and assertive and even forsook his narrative style to project his philosophy. On the other hand, Sen, who had all along been identified with gimmickry and loud overtones, suddenly became quiet and introspective.

They once were good friends

It must be difficult for the present generation to believe that these two extremely different men used to be good friends at one time. Ray dew the cover of Sen’s book on Chaplin and Sen was a regular visitor to Ray’s Lake Temple Road flat where they discussed cinema for hours together. Sen was overwhelmed by Aparajito, which he still considers Ray’s best film, but, ironically, did not like Paras Pather, which he told Ray in so many words. Ray did not think very highly of Baishey Shravana but later changed his mind, and during the Second International Film Festival in 1965, while he was functioning as the chairman of the Jury, he asked Sen to arrange a special screening of the film for some of his friends.

Satyajit Ray’s cover art for Mrinal Sen’s book on Charles Chaplin.

Given the background, Sen was deeply hurt by Ray’s stand on Akash Kusum, but never betrayed his emotion. Although the old warmth was gone, he tried to show that it was business as usual. So, he duly invited Ray to see his next film, Matira Manisha (Two Brothers). Ray liked the film and announced it publicly. He was equally vocal and forthright in praise of Oka Oorie Katha almost ten years later.

In his film Bhuvan Shome, Sen paid his respects to his illustrious contemporary by showing his photographs on the screen while talking about the glory of Bengal. But Ray did not like Bhuvan Shome, as he made it clear in his book, Our Films, Their Films:

It worked because it used some of the most popular conventions of cinema which helped soften the edges of its occasional spiky syntax. Those conventions are: a delectable heroine, an ear-filling background score and a simple, wholesome, wish-fulfilling screen story (summary in seven words: Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle).

After the book was published, Sen received a request from a Calcutta weekly to review the book in its columns. After some initial hesitation, Sen agreed to do so. Referring to Ray’s criticism of Bhuvan Shome, he wrote:

The critics made favourable comments, the people liked it, the people and the critics considered it offbeat. Understandably, we were happy…For whatever its worth, Bhuvan Shome was accepted, so they say, for a certain freshness in approach. And that is all.

Sen amended Ray’s summary by calling the film ‘Big Bad Bureaucrat Chastized by a Charmer’s Cheek’. The review came out under the title, ‘His Book, My Comments’.

His best enemy

During the last decade of his life, Ray had greater interaction with Sen, as they worked together in a number of committees, film seminars and other such platforms. But there is no change in their cold and formal relationship.

Ray launched another scathing attack on Sen during his last days, though it may be said that he did not want it to become public knowledge. In a letter to his old friend and well-known critic Chidananda Dasgupta, he alleged that makers of the so-called art film were more interested in attending foreign festivals than building up rapport with their audience at home. ‘None of them, even Mrinal, knows the art of storytelling,’ was Ray’s verdict.

This private letter to a personal friend, written in June 1991, was leaked to a national daily without Ray’s permission in October. By that time Ray was a sick man and it was no secret that his days were numbered. Sen was visibly shaken by this unexpected accusation, but kept his cool and on insistence from various quarters and also from the press, came out with an extremely dignified response:

I do not want to enter into a debate on aesthetics and the art of narration for fear of distributing Ray’s mental peace which, on health grounds, he needs as much as his daily drugs.

But there was no more scope for a dialogue with Ray on this issue, as Satyajit Ray passed away on 23 April 1992, barely six months after the letter raised a storm.

Throughout Ray’s illness, the Sens were in constant touch with the family of Ray, and were the first to arrive at the nursing home after the sad news was announced. Till the funeral, Sen was seen moving around with a vacant look in his eyes. Almost two decades ago, he had asked Ray about his loneliness; suddenly, the same loneliness enveloped him. As he stood before Ray’s dead body on that hot April afternoon with Ray’s imposing frame soon to disappear for all time to come, he realized there was no one left who could inspire, enthuse and provoke him to scale higher peaks.

Excerpted with permission from Mrinal Sen Sixty Years in Search of Cinema, Dipankar Mukhopadhyay, HarperCollins India.